NEW YORK CITY––By all accounts, the Seattle Seahawks defense was suffocating in their Super Bowl XLVIII victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, stopping the NFL's No. 1 offense dead in its tracks, the 43-8 final score as evidence of the dominance.
The Seahawks get superb play from all levels of their defense, but nowhere else in the NFL might there be a safety tandem like Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, both playing large roles in NFL's championship game: Chancellor picking off Peyton Manning to set up Seattle's first touchdown of the game and Thomas making seven tackles, including one for a loss, flying up from his free safety position to make a stop behind the line of scrimmage.
They stand in stark contrast to the Packers safety tandem in 2013 consisting primarily of Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings, the duo that failed to come up without a single interception in 16 regular season contests and one playoff game between the two of them.
If the Seahawks have the No.1 group of safeties in the NFL, the Packers might have the 32nd. There's little question it's one of the weakest units on the Packers roster and one in desperate need of upgrading if the Packers hope to get back to promised land that is Super Bowl glory.
But what is it that the Seahawks have at safety that the Packers don't? What qualities, traits, attributes, characteristics and features do the best pair of safeties in professional football possess?
For Thomas, it's speed. But it goes beyond just the physical speed that can be measured with those stopwatches so many scouts will be holding at the NFL Combine in just a little over two weeks from now.
“One of the things that I regard in quarterbacks, a lot, is that mental quickness," said Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in the run-up to the Super Bowl earlier in the week. "They know where to go with the ball or they know what to do in a certain situation.
"I think as a defensive player, (Thomas has) totally put the time in to put himself into that position, based on a formation, a split or an alert. I’ve said it before, when he was first here in the offseason, I would walk down the hall and there would be a light in the DB meeting room. I generally had a sense of who was in there, probably watching tape. It was Earl. You can feel that drive from him, the constant film study, that he really wants to attack it and be as good as he can be. That’s one of the things I admire most about him. He’s fast, he has a great skill set, but really, there’s this other side of him from off the field that he wants to be great. He really works at it hard.”
The closing speed of Thomas is among the things that make him most impressive, that ability to arrive the same time as the football or make a tackle almost instantaneously the moment the receiver makes a catch, something Thomas and the rest of the players in the Seattle secondary were doing with regularity against the Broncos.
But part of the reason that's possible is because of the hard work Thomas and his compatriots do off the field. Because of diligent study, they knew how they would be attacked by the likes of Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on Sunday.
"I just try to be the best," said Thomas. "I just try to own my role, be the best free safety possible and try to eliminate all the big plays in the run game and the pass game. I try to be able to cover deep and come up and make tackles just like a linebacker. I just let my speed do the talking for me. Speed kills."
Complementing the speed of Thomas is the physicality of Chancellor, the man who puts the "strong" in "strong safety" and the "Boom" in "Legion of Boom."
Chancellor is an intimidating presence in the Seattle defensive backfield, a defender liable to deck an opposing receiver coming across the middle and leave him laying on the ground while he comes to his senses.
"I love being called the enforcer, and I love the respect from my teammates and the L.O.B.," said Chancellor. "Since day one, I've always been a guy who’s been physical. Always been a guy who brings the boom to the group. And they always looked at me as that guy. They looked at me as a big brother. Every chance I get I try to go out there and lay the boom for these guys. I play for my brothers, and we emphasize that all the time.”
It helps to have Chancellor's size and stature. The ability to make punishing tackles come easy when you're as physically endowed with a muscular body as the two-time Pro Bowl safety.
But while Chancellor is 6-3 and 232 lbs. and Thomas is just 5-10 and 202 lbs., they both get the job done no matter what size they are.
Their common bond isn't necessarily any physical attribute, it's what's inside, according to Chancellor.
"Both of us have have big hearts no matter the size of the person," said Chancellor. "We have huge hearts, and we're determined. We have a vision. We had a vision when we first came here, and we told ourselves, 'This is what we want to be. This is how we want people to envision us. This is how we want people to look at us.' And it's playing out just like we said, and it's kind kind of scary because we always talk about it, and it's going exactly like we want it to."
Following a season in which the Packers defense largely let down a team with explosive offense, it's up the front office to add depth at the safety position in the mold of Thomas and Chancellor, not that they need one bigger player and one smaller one. They just need better overall talent.
Whether it's through free agency or the draft is immaterial. Whatever the method of procuring talent, the Packers have to figure out a way to elevate the level of play at safety in 2014. The pieces are already in place on the offensive side of the football, led by Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy, and now it's time for the safeties to become reliable at the very least and preferably playmakers, not unlike the pair in Seattle.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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